Language Teacher as Language Learner

A colleague and I were recently discussing the issue of which aspects of our professional practice as language instructors are informed by our formal training, which by our classroom teaching experience and which by our own personal experience as learners and users of additional languages. The topic came up in regards to the issue of the acquisition of metaphorical competence. For both of us, our own experiences of the process of becoming aware of the metaphorical schemata we hold in our L1, and then overcoming those to fully acquire metaphorical competence in other languages greatly informs how we approach teaching from the most basic structures to collocations, phrasal verbs, and idioms.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of travel and work in one of my additional languages lately, doing a lot of meetings and presentations in Spanish across Latin America. This has also made me reflect on how much of my teaching is informed by my own experiences in learning and using additional languages. Very practical strategies for learning and communication are another area that I draw on, sharing my own strategies with my students. There are the things we always advise our students to do—we all have our old chestnuts—but it’s good to have a reminder every so often of some of the real-life challenges that may come up and some practical advice on how to cope.

Here is what has stood out for me lately:

Predict and Prepare

One mantra I always emphasize when working with advanced users of academic English preparing for academic presentations, conferences or their thesis defence is predict and prepare. In advance of any particular event or context where they will have to talk about their research or discuss ideas in their field, they should think hard to predict what they have to talk about, and questions they may be asked or the responses they may have to give. Then, I advise them to actually sit down and prepare a list of the key words, concepts, terminology, expressions they will need to draw on in doing all of the above. They should not just make a simple list, but include common synonyms or collocations and related word forms, as well as pronunciation. Most people are used to the concept of rehearsing presentations, but I encourage students to also practice smaller-scale or more informal sections of these communicative events, such as Q and A responses, answers to certain predicted interview questions, and rebuttals to criticisms of one’s research.

I’ve certainly had to practice what I preach in this respect with regards to my recent work in Spanish. When presenting in English, I don’t tend to script things too closely; I’ll prepare notes or points on a Powerpoint and then speak off of them rather extemporaneously. But in Spanish I’ve been speaking about an area with a lot of specialized terminology, which I’ve really had to research and prepare for. Thankfully, a lot of the questions I receive are easily predictable, so that has helped me focus my preparation.

Regional variation and Register

I’ve done work in 7 different Latin America countries in the last while, each with its own patterns of second person pronoun use (tu, usted, vos, etc.) and variation in register. I’ll try to read up on the use of pronouns in each country before I get there, but there’s only so much an article can tell you. I try to be very sensitive and observant around patterns of use and how they vary in service encounters, meetings and when speaking to and advising  youth and prospective students, where the age factor comes into play. But it’s tricky! I try to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

This has inspired me to put more emphasis on register in my classes. Sometimes there can be a tendency to view English as simple in this respect, as there is only one second person singular pronoun. But I am feeling inspired about spending more time on examining the other ways register, hierarchy, respect, distance, etc. are expressed in English in interpersonal encounters, and encouraging learners to be observant and sensitive to these phenomena. I used to spend a lot of time approaching register in this way when I taught a lot of business English, but in an EAP context I find the focus tends to be on informal vs. academic writing and speech. I think the regional variation in register in Anglophone countries is also important, but as is usual in many ELT materials, the discussion tends to stop at British vs. American differences. Those trying to figure out register in Canada are left to figure it out for themselves! Observation of patterns and sensitivity become all the more important.

Informal Recasts

Awareness of the fact that even recasts in formal classroom settings go ignored most of the time has left me determined to try to listen for them and incorporate them to improve my accuracy, especially of vocabulary. For example, in a conversation with a student, I had used the term biología marítima to refer to marine biology, but he replied using the term biología marina. “Whoops!”, I said to myself, and took note to correct that term in my internal dictionary.

Does awareness of the research around recasts and the fact that they often lead to very little uptake make learners more likely to listen for them, take them in, and therefore make them more likely to be effective? I think it does, and always bring this up in class, especially in speaking and pronunciation classes.

Paraphrasing

Finally, not that there as any doubt, but these experiences have driven home the importance of fluency and confidence (over accuracy) in asserting yourself and being accepted as a user of a particular language. Many people, whether subconsciously or consciously, hold the idea that fluency (interplaying with pronunciation here) in a language reflects your cognitive state. So in real-life professional communicative situations it’s best to just employ any strategies necessary to get on with things, rather than getting hung up on grammatical mistakes or blanking on a particular piece of vocab. Finding time in class not just to discuss these strategies, but to practice them via role plays or other activities is very important.

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Teacher Qualification Frameworks and Equity in Hiring

Lots of university language centres in Canada get a big influx of EAP students in the Fall semester, and that often means hiring on more instructors. Although that’s not the case with our centre this year, it’s got me thinking about hiring.

In Canada, language schools or institutes might operate within a couple of different accreditation or certification frameworks in terms of the qualifications of academic staff hired: TESL Canada Professional Certification, a provincial certification process, or if it’s a Languages Canada-accredited language training institution, their Classification of TESOL Qualifications.

TESL Canada and Languages Canada are great organizations, and their existence and advocacy has contributed immensely to the professionalization and raising standards of English language teaching in Canada, especially with regards to teachers on government-sponsored immigrant language programs (Burnaby 2003; Sivell 2005; Chafe and Wang, 2008), and with regards to private language schools.

At the same time, the teaching of English for Academic Purposes in the higher education context seems to be a bit of a different beast in terms of the qualifications, background and experience of value in a potential instructor. For example, advanced degrees, research experience, familiarity with academic discourse(s) in different disciplines and published academic work is all of great value in an EAP instructor. BALEAP’s TEAP Competency Framework reflects this in a way that general ELT certification frameworks don’t (and can’t).

I also think that some aspects of the general ELT certification and accreditation frameworks work against diversity and equity in hiring, especially in a context like Canada. For example, for TESL Canada certification a teacher’s training has to have been carried out at an institution on their list of accredited training programs. This list is, in my opinion, very short, and every institution on it is located in Canada. If your training is from another institution, you have to apply for an onerous and expensive prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) process. In an industry as globally-mobile as TESOL, and in a country with as much immigration as Canada, this is quite out of touch with the reality on the ground, where a great number of us (myself included) have training, qualifications and experience from outside the country.

Similarly, TESL Canada has a very narrow definition of acceptable English(es). They require any applicants for certification who have not completed an undergraduate degree at an English-speaking university in one of the countries on this list to show proof of language proficiency. Lists of this type are common in university admissions, etc., but this particular list has a couple of notable omissions, such as Pakistan and India. In these two countries, English-medium higher education is very common, and there are also a significant number of Canadians who have received their education there. Why are they not on that list?

Finally, both TESL Canada and Languages Canada TESOL Qualification criteria prescribe training programs with a very specific minimum of observation and practicum hours. While recent certificate, diploma and degree-programs in the Anglo world might be likely to include these elements that is not the case in many contexts around the world. Folks who have received their TESOL training in the context of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in many different countries would not have had observations or practicum placements, as it’s simply not the norm.

Why flexibility and ability to exercise judgement in hiring are extremely important, as they allow me to hire who I consider to be qualified and a good fit for a given position, be they born, raised and trained in Canada, a recent newcomer to Canada, a Canadian with diverse worldwide experience, or a speaker of one of a variety of World Englishes. If someone has a degree in TESL from another country with no practicum, but a ton of teaching experience, then I can hire them. If they speak Indian English, I don’t have to subject them to an IELTS test. If they have a master’s in biology on top of their other qualifications, I can value that and put them on a science writing course. Languages Canada provides some flexibility by stipulating, for example, that “there will be a valid rationale provided for the employment of any teachers or academic leader without the ELT/TESOL qualifications specified.” This is extremely important not just to allow hiring to reflect the difference between EAP and general ELT, but to ensure I can hire a complement of qualified, experienced and engaged teachers that reflects the diversity of the Canadian population. Our educational program is the richer for it.

Interaction for Learning Framework

The interface between TESOL and international higher education is such an fascinating space to be working in these days. I enjoy how my work will take me into diverse areas and fields–EAP, general academic writing, SoTL, internationalization of the curriculum, etc. Every year Dalhousie hosts a conference on teaching and learning in higher education, and it’s a great chance to connect with people from different faculties and departments from universities all over Canada who care about teaching and learning. No matter what the conference theme, I always try to present on something related to linguistic and cultural diversity in our classrooms and/or internationalization of the curriculum and pedagogies. It’s so important to try to counter the deficit view of linguistic diversity and international students that is still quite common out there in Canadian higher ed. One way to do this is to offer some practical tools and teaching techniques.

Next week I’ll be presenting The Interaction for Learning Framework: A tool for learning in diverse classrooms .

It’s the first time I’ve presented on this topic, and I’m really excited about it. I’m still finalizing the presentation; if you have worked with this framework before, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter.

Here’s a description:

Despite increasing diversity at many institutions, students often gravitate toward others of similar linguistic or cultural backgrounds academically—in class, for groupwork or assignments, tutorial choice—as well as socially. When this happens, the benefits of learning in a diverse setting, such as expanded world view, increased empathy, strengthened sense of global citizenship, may remain unrealized. Many educators experience frustration when faced with this tendency of students to self-segregate. They many feel helplessness, or confusion at why interaction doesn’t just happen on its own. They may not realize that they are in a position to facilitate an inclusive classroom environment or they may realize this but lack the tools to do so.

This presentation is an introduction to one of these tools: the ‘Interaction for Learning Framework’ (ILF), which was developed at the Centre for Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne by researcher Sophie Arkoudis and her team. Arkoudis et al. (2012) and Arkoudis et al. (2013) describe this framework in detail. The ILF was developed to help faculty and instructors structure the learning environment to increase interaction between domestic and international students.

In the proposed session, I will introduce the framework and its spheres of application, balancing theoretical information with examples of its application from around the world, as well as criticisms that have emerged out of the literature. In terms of session outcomes, participants will learn about the ILF, and how to apply it in the context of their curriculum and classroom pedagogies to facilitate interaction between students and the synthesis of course material. There will be time allotted to reflection and application of the ILF to participants’ own educational contexts.

If true inclusion, diversity and internationalization are to be achieved on our campuses and in our classrooms, we must move past buzzwords and strategic directives and do the hard work of changing our curricula and pedagogies to foster the types of attitudes and create the types of environments we envision. This change won’t necessarily happen without our intervention. The ILF is one technique TAs, instructors and faculty can add to their toolbox for inclusive teaching.

References:

Arkoudis, S., Watty, K., Baik, C., Yu, X., Borland, H., Chang, S., Lang, I., Lang, J. & Pearce, A. (2013). Finding common ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(3), 222-235.

Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English language standards in higher education: from entry to exit. Camberwell, Vic.: ACER Press.

ELT and International Higher Ed

I’ve been neglecting my blog, I’m afraid. It’s ready to blame it solely on my doctoral thesis, which nearing completion, but it’s not just that. My professional role has expanded to include the realm of international higher education, which has meant a bunch of missions abroad representing the university, our English language unit, and Canadian higher ed in general over the past year and a half or so. Mostly to Latin America, and usually with a consortium or co-op such as the CALDO Consortium, Languages Canada or EduNova, these missions have been not only extremely interesting, but have given me some new insight into the the role of language in the internationalization of higher education.

For example, the growth of international education has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of English language as a medium for teaching, learning and research. As a result, English-medium instruction, language training for students and academics, and language capacity-building play an important role in many international partnerships. As well, policies and practices such as language proficiency requirements for admission, and standardized language testing continue to be points of discussion. However, the potentially important role language in international education is often underestimated. How innovative approaches to language can contribute to sustainable and successful initiatives is not adequately discussed.

I see this lack of attention paid to the role and potential of language in international higher ed as especially glaring  when it is done by Anglo-Canadian institutions. Going into meetings with institutions from places where English is not the dominant language, language proficiency, training, assessment and EMI are often prominent concerns, brought up right from the start in discussion of student and faculty mobility and joint research collaboration, etc. A monolingual mindset is prevalent at many Anglo-Canadian universities (more on that in my thesis!). This means that sometimes Canadian institutions don’t seem to think that these are important concerns and don’t address them as they build programs. Sometimes institutions don’t see language teaching, learning and research as “proper” scholarship, and miss opportunities for things like short-term language courses to be a first step in collaboration between two institutions while more complicated agreements get worked out for things like joint doctoral degrees or other more involved sorts of collaboration.

New EAP Book Series

I’m very excited to have just joined the advisory board for a new EAP book series: NEW PERSPECTIVES FOR ENGLISH FOR ACADEMIC PURPOSES. This series sets the agenda for studies in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) by opening up research and scholarship to new domains, ideas and perspectives as well as giving a platform to emerging and established practitioners and researchers in the field.

Check out this flyer for more details and/or contact info on how to submit:

Language Awareness for All

Forever35 Podcast: Two friends that like to talk about serums

Yes, so I love podcasts! (And have talked about them on this blog here and here.)I was listening to the Forever35 podcast the other day, (getting some advice on serums and the like, as one does), and there was a relative controversy that erupted over micellar water/eau micellaire–not over the cosmetic product itself, but over the pronunciation.

The show hosts had commented on a previous episode about not knowing how to pronounce the name of this product, so various people called in suggesting pronunciations: someone from Switzerland giving /mi.sɪ.’lɛ
ʁ / , and someone from the US suggesting /maɪ.’sɛ.lər/. The hosts kept making a big deal out of how different these pronunciations were, and that they still didn’t know which one was the “right” pronunciation.

What struck me about this whole podcast was the lack of language awareness. These weren’t two differing pronunciations of the same word, but the pronunciations of two separate words in two completely different languages. It wasn’t that one was right and the other wrong; one is correct in English and the other correct in French. It’s not really a debate. Now if it had been a debate on the wheres, whens and hows of, for example, using French loanwords for cosmetics or other products in English, it would have been interesting. But it was two people not really noticing the difference between two completely different languages. (Don’t worry, it was cleared up on the following episode, after a bunch of listeners who were probably thinking the same thing as me called in to clear up the (non-)debate!

To me it seemed like such an example of the monolingual mindset (Clyne, 2005), a denial of societal de facto multi/plurilingualism in the context of monolingualism in the dominant majority language (in this American case, English) as the default standard. Amongst all various other phenomena associated with the monolingual mindset is a lack of interest in, or value put on learning /speaking of other languages, as it is seen as something difficult outside the realm of ordinary people. The hosts of the podcast were so thoroughly immersed in a monolingual mindset that it didn’t occur to them that the two pronunciations of micellar/micellaire might actually be in two languages; they could only comprehend them as being variants on the English word, one of which had to be wrong.

I don’t bring this up to try to brag about the fact that I happen to know English and French and so this stood out to me. Rather, it was a reminder to me that there are lots of people who live in different contexts where a monolingual mindset is the status quo, and sometimes those same people end up moving to Canada to study and joining our language classes.

In an EAP context I like to do a lot of (critical) language and linguistic awareness-raising of everything: socio-cultural contexts of language use, language and power, phonological awareness, awareness of the history of English, social variability of language use, etc.. I like to make comparisons between English and other languages, as well, as especially where relevant to talk about vocabulary loanwords, or to compare syntactic phenomena.

These are such interests of mine, and I’ve been studying/talking about them for so long, if I get too excited I might get carried away: my teacher talk getting too jargon-y, and I might dive too fast and too deep into some of the topics I’ve mentioned above. But if someone is coming from a context where the monolingual mindset it present, their language awareness might be at a very low level. In that case, the language awareness pieces would have to be very carefully scaffolded to make sure everyone in the class was on the same page, and that learning outcomes were being achieved by all members of the class.

What makes an idiom?

I’m sure most of us saw the Tweet from animal-rights organization PETA last week, proposing non-“speciesist” alternatives to common idioms involving animals. PETA was roundly lambasted on social media and the criticism ranged from pure mockery to sociolinguistic (around the pronunciation of the word ‘scone’), to  denouncing their conflation of “speciesism” with other forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia and anti-semitism.

Wider debates aside, and regardless of your take on PETA’s proposal–I personally agree that conflating “speciesism” with other forms of oppression is completely absurd–, these idioms could be great fodder for the classroom. You could start with discussions of the descriptive approach to language, where use determines what’s “right” and grammatical. That leads into the question of what actually makes an idiom: if what is grammatical and acceptable is what’s commonly used, and idioms are established by usage, can you just propose new ones like this? Are they even idioms if no one uses them? You could bring in counter examples, though, where a concerted effort was made to force language to evolve to reflect changing societal attitudes, such as gender-neutral language. Especially when it was first introduced, gender-neutral language received (and still receives) backlash. Would students see the PETA examples as the same phenomena of proposing changes to have language better reflect certain societal attitudes?

Then you could have some fun. You could present some established idioms involving animals (the ones on PETA’s list, and some others), teach their meaning and use, and then have students create their own non-animal alternatives. As always with lessons on idioms and expressions, fun conversation could ensue with cross-cultural comparisons of idioms, and what images and metaphors are used to express the same meaning in different languages. 

Finally, with the list of students’ new, creative idioms in hand, you may or may not want to embark on a discussion about creativity with language, and who gets to innovate and be creative and who doesn’t. When an author gets creative and creates a new expression, or PETA proposes new idioms, that’s ok, but if a learner of English or a speaker of a non-local or non-standard variety of English does the same thing, it’s often considered a mistake; they’re delegitimized as users of English.  

The HE IELTS Blame Game

This article is a real head-shaker: More than 400 students in India told to retake language tests after Niagara College flags concerns. As the subtitle to this article puts it, “an Ontario college has raised questions over the validity of the scores of a popular international standardized language test submitted by students applying from India after a probe found “inconsistencies” in language proficiency”.

I’m shaking my head over so many aspects of this situation. There are so many leaps of logic. And it seems like they didn’t really take the time to consult people that understand the IELTS exam and its shortcomings and/or the interplay of English fluency and teaching/learning in higher education. 

  • So, the faculty of this college flagged 300 students for being “at risk academically” (How? Using what tool/metric/method? Did unconscious bias/systemic racism play a role in who gets flagged as it has and does in lots of other Canadian higher ed contexts? ).
  • This was more than the 150 students flagged last year. (Did the demographics of the students admitted to the college also change in this time?)
  • The student flagged were made to take an in-house language test. (Was this test? Who designed it? Was it valid/reliable? Who corrected it? Does it test what the IELTS tested? Does it test content knowledge?) 
  • The college found 200 out of the group that did the in-house test were failing in their academic programs because their English was not “at the required level”. (Wait, what? How did we jump from students’ language proficiency to failing their academic programs/being “at-risk”? Don’t they realize that you can fail a course for many reasons?) 
  • The majority of the students who failed the in-house test were from India and had done the IELTS at IDP centres in India (How many more Indian students did the college admit this year over last year? How many cities and centres are we talking about?). So the college freaks out about the discrepancy between the IELTS score and the score on the in-house test, alerts IDP and IRCC (!) about these ‘inconsistencies’, making it sound like there’s testing fraud at IDP centres. (Do they not know how common it is for there to be a discrepancy between IELTS scores and real-life language ability? That you can get a 6.0 IELTS (the score required for admission to Niagara College) and not be able to meet the academic demands of higher education, which are much more complex and broad than what is tested on the IELTS?)
  • The college is paying for 400 Indian applicants to be re-tested (Where? With what test?) before they can be admitted for January. 

It seems to me like this college opened the floodgates and admitted a very large number of students who use English as a second/additional language from India, all at once, without considering or making any arrangements for (1) students’ development of academic language and literacies appropriate for the Canadian college context or (2) developing their faculty’s skill and ability to teach a culturally and linguistically-diverse student clientele (3) adapting curriculum to a very culturally and linguistically-diverse student body whose academic language and literacies are varying and will need support and development.

This college does not seem to understand that the IELTS exam only tests what it tests, and that is only a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of linguistic and academic skills needed to succeed in English-medium higher education. So someone can get a 6.0 (or higher!) on the IELTS and still be unable to succeed at university. Think of the IELTS as testing running speed, and studying in higher education as soccer. I may be a very fast runner, and running is an important part of soccer, and I have to be able to run a certain speed to get onto the soccer team. But just because I can run fast doesn’t mean I’ll be able to play soccer well or be a star player. I need some training in some of the other skills involved in soccer, like dribbling, passing and shooting. 

As well, this college doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that many people can train specifically for the IELTS exam, and without any fraud or nefarious tricks, get a score much higher than what their real-life language ability would suggest.  You could go to any university or college in Canada and test first-semester students on an in-house language test and you’d find lots of students with a discrepancy between that test score and their IELTS score. It’s simplty the nature of the beast. Far be it from me to defend IELTS or IDP, but it seems like in this case they’ve become scapegoats for an inadequate institutional response to very rapid changes in admissions demographics for this college. 

Institutions can make a fuss about IELTS scores, but it won’t be enough to ensure an equitable teaching and learning environment for students from all linguistic backgrounds. Regardless of what a certain IELTS score for admission may be, institutions have to change their curricula, integrating time and space for the development of academic language and literacies into their courses and programs. If you want a very diverse group of students to possess certain skills, you have to teach them!

LPP Conference 2018

CaptureI’m thrilled to present at the Multidisciplinary Approaches to Language Policy and Planning conference this week at OISE in Toronto.

My session is based on my on-going doctoral research is entitled A Discursive Exploration of English Language Policy at Linguistically-Diverse Canadian Universities. As can happen, I submitted that title and abstract months ago, and as I’ve progressed in my research in the meantime, a more accurate title would now be “Language-as-problem” at Linguistically-Diverse Canadian Universities. To find out why, you’ll just have to attend the talk! 😉

At conference where sessions are limited to 20-30 minutes (as this one is) I always find just as some good conversations get going, things get cut off. So I’ve directed attendees to this blog post to continue the discussion and Q &A about the topic and findings I raise in my session. If that’s how you got here, welcome!

I’d love to hear your reflections on the themes raised in my talk in light of your own context. Here are some questions you might consider:

  • Do you see any of the phenomena I discussed in my talk in your particular context?
  • What recommendations for language, literacy and internationalization stakeholders in a Canadian HE context would you give in light of today’s discussion?
  • How do we go about changing discourses?

 

Pain Questionnaire for Vocab Learning

CaptureI recently came across the McGill Pain Questionnaire or the McGill Pain Index, a tool developed in the 70’s by a Montreal doctor to be used in medical settings for patients to self-rate the pain they’re feeling. It contains 78 words divided into 20 sections or categories.

Now, I am not in a position to comment on the effectiveness of its clinical usage, but I think it could be used for vocabulary learning, especially for advanced students or students studying English for use in healthcare study or professional settings.

I can think of tons of ways to use this tool in the classroom. Because of the pain descriptors are broken down and organized into categories (temporal, spatial, affective, etc.), I think it provides a less overwhelming introduction to this vocabulary then an unsorted list. With so many words that are essentially synonyms for the word ‘painful’, the chief challenge will be learners differentiating the subtleties in meaning and usage of all these words. I think the categorization will help.

This vocab could then form the basis of disciplinary writing activities such as patient case reports, primary practice reports, or patient charts or records. It could play a role in speaking activities such as presentations for the context of public health education or outreach. The questionnaire form itself could form the basis of patient-clinician role-play activities.

A non-ESP/EAP extension activity would be noticing how and which of these words are used in fiction or journalistic texts, or in advertising (for pharmaceuticals, especially). I think it could also spark very interesting discussions on cross-linguistic descriptions and conceptualizations of pain as students will inevitably look for translations and equivalencies in their L1 or other languages.

In settlement English contexts, this could be adapted into an activity focusing on the linguistic aspects of visiting the doctor or the hospital in English. On a side note, for those teachers who haven’t ever or have rarely visited the doctor in an additional language, looking at the questionnaire is a great reminder of how linguistically demanding a doctor’s visit can be, and how a lack of vocabulary to describe pain (or body parts or functions, or many other things) could very easily result in inaccurate diagnoses or sub-standard care.

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